Book Review

Larissa Tetsch

Michael Charles Tobias:
Codex Orféo.

Hardcover: 294 pages
Publisher: Springer; 1st ed. 2017 edition (25 Jun. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 3319306219
ISBN-13: 978-3319306216
ASIN (Kindle Edition): B01H30JCAS
€32 (Hardcover), €24 (Kindle Edition)

The True Meaning of Survival

An American Jew sets out in search of his brother, believed long since dead, and discovers not only his personal limits but also the limit of what a human can endure and survive. Whilst he plunges into Europe’s most inaccessible neck of the woods, the world’s secret services are hot on his heels...

The American author, ecologist and filmmaker, Michael Charles Tobias, dedicated his life to the adverse impact of human civilisation on the biosphere. Photo: WMoHV

Which secret tie connects the United Nations Rio+20 Summit of 2012 (alias the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development) with the holocaust? What connects a mushroom, producing psychoactive substances and a Jewish boy, who lost an eye to a bullet after the German invasion of Poland in 1939? What does 84-year-old American ecologist, David Lev, have in common with Belorussian biochemist Taman Chernichevsky, whose PhD students all follow their own dubious plans? And why, all of a sudden, is the whole world interested in this last area of untouched European wilderness, the huge “Białowieza Forest” National Park, straddling the border between Belarus and Poland?

A tragedy of two brothers

Codex Orféo begins like a classic spy story. From the first page onwards, the reader is drawn into a compelling and suspenseful story, which creates the subtle atmosphere of an unclear threat and total surveillance. Initially, a myriad of short stories unravel seemingly unconnected, an impression that is intensified by the short chapters. Only in the course of the story all the plots and people intermingle to form a dense mesh.

Concurrently, Codex Orféo is also a very personal life story, a tragedy, which centres around two brothers – one of whom is David Lev, a survivor of the holocaust, who has lived in California ever since the German invasion and is trying to forget his childhood in Poland. To protect the suspense, the other brother shall not be revealed at this point. Lev is – as an ecologist – an expert in extinct species or those that are threatened by extinction. It is an irony of history that he himself belongs to such a species, the European Jews that were nearly annihilated by Nazi mass murder.

The novel’s other scientist, Taman, however, still lives in the homeland of Lev’s early days, in the forbidden borderland between Poland and Belarus – the latter being Europe’s last totalitarian dictatorship. As a mycologist, he works in Białowieza Forest, one of the last wild and untouched primeval forests in Europe. In this militarily controlled area, he is one of the few people with a permit to stay; someone, who lives in accord with the forest creatures throughout the year and who dares to defy the severe continental winters with temperatures of twenty-five degrees below zero.

In this hostile environment, the scientist has made two discoveries that now threaten his life and urge him to contact his unknown American colleague: one is a molecular biological-ecological discovery, the other a historical-political one. Which of them is more interesting to the intelligence services on Taman’s heels, however, remains elusive to your reviewer.

Discoveries that threaten our hero’s life

The novel’s author, Michael Charles Tobias, is a well-known writer and filmmaker in the United States. He is an advocate for animal rights and an environmentalist having done, “field-research that has taken him to well over 80 countries“ (according to Tobias is described by his publishing company, Springer, as an, “internationally renowned ecologist, philosopher, anthropologist, author of fiction and non-fiction; an explorer, filmmaker, educator and head of a major international ecological NGO”. The last refers to the “Dancing Star Foundation” – a non-governmental organisation, of which Tobias is President and which, “initiates and oversees on-the-ground ecological restoration, animal rights protection, international symposia, publications, films, and animal sanctuary endeavors throughout the world”.

A rather philosophical point of view

Indeed in Codex Orféo Tobias touches on many scientific and ecological questions dealing with conservation biology, animal behaviour and human psychology. However, one should bear in mind that Tobias does not have a natural scientific education. Possibly due to the fact that he holds a PhD in History of Consciousness, he approaches most questions from a rather philosophical point of view. Corresponding to the book’s cover, the novel poses profound questions like ‘What are the ethical limits of science?’ and ‘Are we our brother’s keeper?’

Although the ethical limits of science are indeed touched upon, the reviewer feels that the text on the book’s back cover might be a bit misleading and too portentous. Besides, when the book comes to its end, some questions remain unanswered and not all problems have been solved. Maybe on these grounds alone, the book deserves a second read. In any case, the novel, with its beautiful, almost poetic prose is a page turner and provides insight into what survival really means.

Letzte Änderungen: 28.11.2016